Back in the United States…For Now

As of today, I have been back in the United States for about three months now. I haven’t written down rest of my explorations and adventures in Europe, but I will slowly catch up whenever I can. Since completing my yearlong teaching contract in Bielsko-Biala, Poland, I have traveled around Europe with my parents joining me halfway through July. I will try my best to catch up and blog about the various countries I have visited, but right now I’m back in the United States starting the next chapter of my life.

It has been a month since I started grad school at American University in Washington D.C. I had been planning out this stage of my life since around October and November while I was still in Europe. It has been a long process and I am still trying to tie up several loose ends to make everything work out.

American University photo IMG_20150901_110450370_zps4hthb5on.jpg

Why go back to Grad School?

There are many reasons why but the main reasons include a desire to further my education, to become a more qualified and professional ESL teacher, and increase my chances of finding a more stable and better paying job. I enjoyed my year in Poland and I miss my students dearly, but if I want to make this work last longterm, I felt that obtaining an MA in TESOL would open doors to other amazing opportunities. American University had a good reputation and the doors there opened for me.

Washington, D.C.

Bielsko-Biala, Poland

The Transition from Poland to D.C.

Emotional is the best way to describe it. The journey wasn’t easy. When my plane from Amsterdam to Minneapolis landed, the reality that I was back in the United States after being gone for almost a year hadn’t taken hold. Driving through Minneapolis and seeing the blue skyscrapers felt strange. Being back home – the place where I grew up – gave me mixed feelings. I was happy to be home and see my huge background where I had imagined taking grand adventures as a young girl. At the same time, I was starting to miss having Poland as my home with the mountains right next door to me.

Minneapolis, Minnesota

I didn’t have a lot of time to miss Europe. I had merely three weeks to prepare for the next phase of my life in Washington D.C. There was packing, unpacking, making sure that my financial ducks were in a row, and getting prepared to drive half way across the country. When I got to D.C., I was thrown into a whirlwind adventure of settling into the house, meeting my five roommates, meeting my classmates, and finding a church to attend.

Months have passed. I’ve busied myself with school, teaching, tutoring, and found some time to do some sightseeing. I’ve met amazing new friends that God has definitely blessed me with. Things are going great! But there are moments where I find myself missing the life I left behind in Europe – in Poland! I miss the small Polish city I lived in, Bielsko-Biala. I miss using my weekends to travel to Krakow as a getaway. I miss the food, especially the cheese and jam. I even miss the days when I found creative ways to communicate with the locals using the little Polish I learned and a game of charades. Most of all, I missed the friends I’ve met and the students I learned to love.

There are some days I wish I can hop back on a plane and visit the the school I taught in and the church I attended most weeks. A piece of my heart is still there and I didn’t realize that I had left it there right away. At the same time, I strongly believe that D.C. is where I’m supposed to be for at least the next two years. I still don’t know everything that’s in store for me. I’m very busy and I still want to take time to write. Maybe I’ll start a new blog about here in the U.S. – specifically D.C.

For now, I want to say thank you to all my of readers who followed my adventures in Europe. I hope to go back abroad in the future, but for now I’m back in the United States. Who knows what God has in store for me once I finish my MA. I might be still needed here in the U.S. long term, or maybe I’ll be sent abroad again. The fact that I don’t know is a beautiful mystery.

But please stay tuned for blog posts about my summer travels. I hope to talk about the adventures I had. Also, stay tuned for a possible new blog about my activities in D.C. Because I’m very busy with my MA, it might be awhile.


Bastille Day in Paris 2015

Every year on July 14, France celebrates Bastille Day – or La Fête nationale. It is a day which commemorates the storming of Bastille on July 14, 1789 during the French Revolution. I happened to be in Paris with my parents during this national celebration.

This is my second time in Paris. My first trip was five years ago during a French study tour with my university. Now I have finally returned to one of the most romantic cities in all of Europe, and I got to experience with my parents who got to see this stunning city for the first time.

The downside to visiting Paris during Bastille Day is that almost everything is closed, but there are plenty of alternative activities that a visitor can do. All the museums were closed, but at least the courtyards in the Louvre were open. Several cafes and restaurants were open to relax and enjoy a tasty meal. The place we – and a lot of other tourists – spent the most of the afternoon was at Sacre-Coeur. We climbed all 300 steps to the top of the cathedral and into the dome. From the very top I could see part of the holiday parade and hear the marching band below. The best part, by far, was the panoramic view below.

Eventually we made our way to the bridge near the Eiffel Tower and waited about two hours until the firework show began. It felt like the 4th of July back in the United States, trying to stake out the best view of the fireworks. As annoying as it was to wait and wait, I just had to look in front of me and remind myself that I am staring straight at the Eiffel Tower. This is not something I see everyday or should take for granted. When the firework show began, I was at the edge of the bridge with no one in front of me with a clear view of the fireworks shooting out of the Eiffel Tower.

I have always enjoyed a good firework show, and it felt very much like any show I would see back in the states for our Independence Day. However, there is a clear difference – we were in Paris and the Eiffel Tower was central to the show itself. This is France’s day to celebrate, and I am here to celebrate with them. This is not to make up for any loss I might have felt when July the 4th came and went while I was in Europe. Instead, I chose to reflect on how France has impacted the rest of the world and why Bastille Day is a holiday to celebrate even if you are not French.

Seeing Lady Liberty on the bridge behind me is one such reminder, at least for other Americans. The Statue of Liberty in New York is such an iconic figure that we tend to forget that it was a present from France. Thinking back on our Independence Day, Americans should remember an important Frenchman who greatly impacted the Revolutionary War in America – Marquis de Lafayette. What country came to America’s aid during that war? France!

Throughout the years, France and French culture is important around the world. Many book, movies, and music are inspired by this incredible culture. The language is spoken in several countries around the world and visiting Paris is most people’s bucket list. Bastille Day is a day for France to celebrate, and as a visitor, I am honored to witness this dazzling celebration of unity.

Dziękuję i do widzenia Polski – Thank You and Goodbye, Poland

As of June 26, I completed my contract with Oxford Centre in Bielsko-Biala, Poland. I can hardly believe that ten months have quickly flown by and the time has come for me to say thank you and goodbye to Poland. I am not leaving Europe yet, just Poland. For the last two weeks, I have been preparing myself for leaving, but now I can hardly believe that the time has come.

Oxford Centre Primary School

Oxford Centre runs two different schools, the primary school and the language school. As a Native English Teacher, I was expected to work for both. The primary school required more work. After all, this was a private school for grades 1-6, specializing in English language skills that replaced the typical public school in Poland. This private school is also very small with under 100 children enrolled. As a teacher, you get to know all of the children very well by the end of the year. Now that I have reached the end, I can look back and see how much the children have grown both physically and academically. I worked with the first grade children the most and they grown a lot in the last year. They had started out with almost no English. Now that they are comfortable with me, they try to talk to me with their basic English skills even though there is a lot of learning left for this age. Still, they have a good start and I am proud of them. Another activity that I was asked to run was a singing club for an extra curricular class. At first there was a Polish teacher running the class, but then she left half way through the year. They tried to find another Polish teacher to take it over, but then someone suggested that I run the class since I have been known for singing during my lessons. I agreed to it even though I am not a professional. The class turned out to be really fun. It was a group of girls from grades 3-5 and we sang songs from Frozen as well as Taylor Swift and Rihanna (clean versions). For the end of the year program, my girls sang “We Found Love” by Rihanna and it turned out well. They knew all the words and sang with a smile. By the end of the year, a group of 4th grade girls who were in my singing class gave me a card and hugged me. They told me not to go back to America and that they loved singing with me every Friday. My eyes got misty then.

Oxford Centre Language School

In the evenings, I taught for the Oxford language school. I gave lessons once a week for various groups. My youngest group was a class made up of three girls who were 4 and 5 years old. My oldest group was an upper-intermediate group with teenagers who were 16 and 17 years old. On top of that, I taught a beginner adult one-on-one. I have also gotten to knows all these children and teenagers, and enjoyed teaching them. Yes, there were moments when they did not want to pay attention because it was around 5 pm on a school night and their parents forced them to go to English lessons. Still, I tried to find ways to make classes fun as well as constructive. I had a lot of ups and downs, but over all, I will miss the kids. I also taught a few one-on-ones with a few kids. I have a private lessons with an 8 year old girl as well as an 11 year old. The 8 year old loved anything to do with Disney princesses and chocolate, and I successfully got the 11 year old girl hooked on Anne of Green Gables (there is an abridged story for ESL learners that was perfect for her!) These lessons were home visits, which were located right next to the mountains. For my 11-year-old, I taught lessons every Wednesday in her bedroom with a gorgeous mountain view.

The Pharmacist

Over half-way through the year, I picked up a private lesson that wasn’t arranged by the school. In the middle of winter, I came down with a nasty cold. I try to avoid going to the pharmacy, but it got to the point where I couldn’t properly function without the help of Sudafed. After work, I went to the nearby pharmacy and tried my best to ask for cold medicine. The pharmacist realized I spoke English. After I told him where I was from and what I was doing in Poland (I got asked that all the time), he asked if he could meet with me once a week so that he could practice his English. Since I wanted more ESL adult experience, I agreed to it. Later, I learned that he wanted to work in London and had connections for pharmaceutical work there, but he was told that he needed to practice his English first. He wanted lessons twice a week, but because I did not have the time, I introduced him to my British colleague and he practiced with both of us every week. I asked him if it was confusing for him to practice with both an American and British teacher, but he seemed lessons from both of us. Lessons with him were very relaxed and enjoyable. I also learned a lot about Polish culture from him and how Poland has changed in the last 20 or more years.

Sfera and the Cafes

The downside for working for Oxford Centre (both primary and language school) was that there were days where I was scheduled to work as early as 8:15 in the morning and as late as 7:45 in the evening. Since my contract was for 30 teaching hours and 10 hours of prep, I had random two hour gaps throughout my day. Usually I would work on lesson planning, grading, and whatnot, but a lot of the time i would want to get out of the building. Near the school was a mall that we called the Sfera. It had two coffee shops that I was a frequent customer of – Coffee Heaven and So Coffee. It was a nice place to go whenever you have that awkward midday break and get some work done (or check Facebook without shame). The baristas who worked there got to know me. They would let me order in Polish, but if they were in the mood they would try to chat with me in English. There was one barista around my age who would ask me English related questions and try to get mini lesson out of me as she made my mocha. As for the rest, they were always friendly and welcoming. I am going to miss those baristas.

Kościół Adwentystów Dnia Siódmego – The Seventh-day Adventist Church

Most Saturdays, I was able to attend the SDA church in Bielsko-Biala. There was a single woman from the church who was willing to pick me up in front of my apartment building and take me to church. She would also translate the sermon even though she’s still learning and practicing her English. In the beginning, translations would turn into discussion about the difference between the words and phrases in Polish and English. She would say something like, “Let’s go to 2nd Moses” and I would be momentarily confused before saying, “Oh, you mean Exodus.” She would then be confused until we realized that the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) were called 1st to 5th Moses. The Ten Commandments were known as the Decalogue, and the book of James in the New Testament is called Jakuba (which is the same name used as the Old Testament Jacob with 12 sons). This woman who took me to church each week went out of her way to make sure that I was comfortable. The young adults in this church were also very friendly to me. What impressed me was that it was one of younger members who helped me translate the Sabbath schools. He was still just a teenager and around the same age the students in my teen English class, but he was the most willing to translate even if his English wasn’t perfect. I was just glad to be apart of this group. The people I met at church were very kind to me and it helped me get to know more people outside of the Oxford Bubble so to say.

Favorite Places in Poland

Now I’m in Switzerland with plans to travel around Europe for another month before finally flying back to the USA. Even though I’m excited for what’s ahead, I’m also sad about leaving Poland. There are places in Poland that are charming in their own way. I will miss Krakow and the city life there. I will miss Bielsko-Biala, my home away from home. I will miss Zakopane and the gorgeous mountains there. I will miss Pszczyna and the quaint park and castle there. I will miss Poland, but the memories will live on. Thank you Poland for welcoming me for the last year, and thank you to everyone who I’ve met along the way. Dziękuję i do widzenia Polski.

Surviving Artists of Copenhagen

Copenhagen wasn’t in the original plan. For over a month, I thought I would spend June break in Budapest, but after checking out train and bus tickets, I discovered that I would spend about the same amount of money on a plane ticket to Copenhagen compared to a train ticket to Budapest. Because I’ve always been interested in visiting a Scandinavian country, it wasn’t hard for me to switch gears.

There is no doubt that Copenhagen is beautiful, especially their infamous canals lined with colorful shops and restaurants. I couldn’t help myself but splurge in a canal boat tour. I arrived for my tour earlier and claimed a seat in the back of the boat so that I could take good photos.

One of the stops on the canal tour was to see the bronze statue of the Little Mermaid perched on the rock. The sculpture was created by a Danish artist, which was inspired by a ballet based off of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, The Little Mermaid. In 1913, the statue was unveiled. There are numerous tours in Copenhagen that include visiting the Little Mermaid.

In addition to the Little Mermaid, there is a statue of the Danish fairy tale author, Hans Christian Andersen, erect in Copenhagen. There is also a major street called H.C. Andersen, which is where the statue is located. After conducting additional research, I discovered that Hans Christian Andersen wrote a lot more than just fairytales but novels and poems as well. He felt passionate about writing a poem that captures the Scandinavian spirit and the relationship between the Nordic countries and cultures. Bearing that in mind, I couldn’t help but sense a spirit of creativity and art in Copenhagen.

In the local hostel, I met a young male artist from Sweden who was taking a four day holiday in Copenhagen to look at the local art. After talking to him for some time, I learned that he was an artist himself and owns an art gallery. However, he also mentioned that he also worked menial jobs in order to pay the bills and survive. He didn’t mind. He would do whatever it took so that he could continue to work on what he truly loves – modern art. I respected that. His passion was evident in the way he talked to me about art, his goals, and the trips he takes for inspiration.

As I continued to explore the streets of Copenhagen, I came across a street artist in one of the squares. She was singing and playing the guitar for the tourists who were just passing by. This is nothing new to me. There are street artists everywhere who look to collect some coinage from tourists. It was her powerful voice that made me stop and listen. After she finished the song, she told everyone that she would play a few songs in both Spanish and English that she wrote. I found myself standing in the square for the next half hour listening to her incredible original songs. Next to me was an Asian tourist who took two pictures of her with his Polaroid camera. Between songs, he dropped one of the pictures in her guitar case. I didn’t have anything creative to give her, but I felt inspired to give her 10 euros and personally wish her the best. She gave me one of her CDs in return. Like the young Swedish artist I met in the hostel, this young woman is a surviving artist who is clearly passionate about her work.

On my final evening in Copenhagen, I took a walk in one of the city parks that’s next to a historical fortification, the Kastellet. As I walked around, I thought about the artists I met in Copenhagen as well as the historical artists, including Hans Christian Andersen who wrote fairytales that captured the entire world. These artists are not starving artists, but rather they are surviving artists who devote hours upon hours to their work and still find ways to make ends meet.

My trip to Copenhagen got me thinking about my future as an artist who’s passionate about writing and photography. As a child and teenager, I enjoyed spending my free time writing stories and taking photos. Now that I’m an adult, I have to think more practically, but the passionate side of me urges me to continue to do what I love. The few days I spent in Copenhagen inspired and encouraged me to continue to do what I love, to not give up, and find a way to balance practical work and passionate work.

The Window

I have lived in Poland for about nine months now. It’s hard to believe that time has gone by so quickly, and yet there have been moments when I felt that time has stood still, frozen. It is no exaggeration to say that my journey has felt like a roller coaster, with many ups and downs. I’ve experienced joy and love, and I have also felt the frosty bite of loneliness. The best way to describe my time in Poland so far is like looking through a window. Most of the time the window is clear with viewers on both side. I see Poland, and Poland sees a curious American girl. At other times, it seems as if I can look through this window, but on the other side there is just a mirror.

For the most part, what I have seen through this window has been good. Through my observations, I have seen and learned so much about Poland. I have breathed in the mountains, the trees, the old town squares of Bielsko, Krakow, and Pszczyna, the lakes, the blossoms of spring, and the snow covered trees of winter. It’s all very beautiful. In many ways, the nature reminds me of my home in the Midwest, and yet it is also very different. There are four distinct seasons in Poland. Spring time has lifted my spirits in many ways, and has stayed at a nice cool temperature, gradually getting us ready for summer, but not skipping over it entirely. (*cough cough* Minnesota!!!) There are some cities like Pszczyna in Southern Poland with beautiful parks and walking paths. As I am writing this, I’m sitting next to a small lake in Pszczyna looking out at the green around me – the green grass, the green leaves on the trees and the weeping willows, bowing next to a quaint, little bridge. Poland has beautiful nature that I never would have known about if I hadn’t accepted the teaching position here in the first place. Spring has pleasantly surprised me.

These last nine months, I have observed a country filled with people who has survived communism, regained their freedom, and maintained their religious values. There are many countries in Europe with people who claim atheism and agnosticism, but in general, Poland has upheld their Catholic beliefs. They take pride in their religion, their Polish pope, and the community they have maintained all these years. Just last Sunday, I walked the streets of Bielsko-Biala to see many boys and girls of about eight years old dressed in white robes. Proud parents would take photos and reserve a place in restaurants to celebrate a child’s first communion. I am not Catholic, but I can’t help but admire some of the genuine joy and pride these children have on their faces during their First Communion. In one of my English classes, half of my students are young girls who were getting ready for their first communion about a week ago. Prior to First Communion, the mother of one of the girls told me how proud she was that her oldest was getting ready for this day. She and the other mothers helped teach the girls how to sing “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen (the Polish version of course.) Towards the end of my lesson with these girls, they begged me to let them sing “Hallelujah” for me. I couldn’t say no to that and found the music for the song on YouTube. As soon as the music started playing, the girls sang out with all their hearts. I couldn’t help but be touched. It reminded me that while I am a Protestant and they are Catholics, we have a belief in God as a commonality.

With religious values at the core of Poland, I believe with much certainty that this influences the strong marriage and family values that the Poles highly uphold. Even if they are not as religious as the generation before them, family, friendships and relationships are clearly important. I see it almost everywhere I go. Just sitting by the lake and observing the people around me, I see mostly couples, and then families, and after that same-sex friendships. Oh, don’t forget a few dogs in the midst! Rarely do I see someone sitting or walking by themselves on a beautiful, sunny weekday. Somehow these relationships seem stronger here in Poland than most places I see in America.

In a recent article I read, couples get married at a much younger age in Poland. Several Polish teachers in the school I work at are married. If they are not married, then they are likely to be in a relationship. If not that, then they are probably seeking to be in one. Sexual desires are in our human nature no matter where we are from, but Poland tends to seek for love that is long term than instant gratification. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying it doesn’t happen in Poland. I just see more young couples, young families, and strong ties.

Sadly, there are also broken families in Poland and children who have one or more absent parents, like many places around the world. Teaching at a private primary school in Poland, I see that it is more common among the wealthier families – a tale as old as time. Divorce is not as common in Poland compared to other countries in Europe and North America (mainly because the Catholic church frowns upon it), but I have heard stories of spouses living separately or trying to push through unhappily. I might not know the back stories of each parent, but I do see some of the children I teach crave for attention.

I have learned so much from observing the people here in Poland. As I mentioned earlier, I had described my observations as looking through a window. As a a young American female temporarily living in Poland, I have seen much but am also very aware of the glass between. I see an overall loving community, and yet I have felt very alone on many occasions. A huge part of this is due to language barriers. Even after living here for nine months my Polish is at best minimal, mainly because my job requires me to teach English and also because the language is difficult, and Poles will comment on how Polish is one of the hardest languages to learn. On the other hand, many people in Poland, including the young people are too shy and afraid to use the English they know. Talking to a young man who goes to the church I attend most weeks, many Poles are afraid to use the wrong verb tense and don’t want to mess up. On another occasion I was talking to a young Polish couple who had asked me about my time in Poland so far. Most of the time I will find something positive to say, but on this occasion, I found myself becoming misty eyed. I admitted that I was having a hard time getting to know other people Polish young people and mostly spent time with other Native English speakers I work with. I gave her a truth, and she returned with a truth of her own. She admitted that she feels like she does not have enough vocabulary to have a full conversation with me. What she told me is true for many people in Poland.

Another reason why I believe I feel occasionally lonely in Poland is the strong family and relationship ties. As I mentioned before, the strong family ties are beautiful, but in a strong friend and family group, it can be very hard to step outside of the comfort zone and meet new people. The same can be true for many countries and cultures around the world, include America. It is human nature, but sometimes you cannot help but wish that someone is willing to take that step, especially when you took a giant leap out of your comfort zone.

Despite the lonely moments on this crazy roller coaster ride, there have been times when the window opens. Sometimes it just takes me opening the window, using the little bit of Polish I know to let others know that I am not afraid to make language mistakes and I do not judge language mistakes. Sometimes it just takes a friendly smile and me just constantly approaching people. On other occasions, the window opens from the other side. These are the unforgettable moments. I find myself going to church most weekends because a single woman in her forties wants to pick me up from my apartment building and translate the sermons for me. This same woman took me shopping during my first few months in Poland and introduced me to her mother. On another occasion, there is a Polish teacher who saw me eating a waffle alone outside and she sat next to me, talking to me for about an hour because she wanted to. Parents of some of my young students take time to chat with me, wanting to know who I am. These are the moments you carry with your forever.

So maybe the window isn’t closed – just ajar.


Quarter-Century in Prague

On Friday May 1, Europe celebrated labor day. Taking full advantage of the three-day weekend, I took a trip to Prague in the Czech Republic. I woke up early in the morning and made my way down south to Prague. With my travels taking up six or more hours of my day, I needed to enjoy every moment I had in Prague.

First Impressions – Money and Puns

The currency used in the Czech Republic is Czech Crowns. Unlike most currencies, there are no cents. Just crowns. Approximately 1 USD equals 25 Crowns and 1 Euro is 27 Crowns. I had to remind myself that while I held a couple thousand Crowns in my wallet.  Sadly, it’s easy to spend hundreds Crowns on food and drink. Still, I am a coin collector. I have a box filled with coins from other countries that I used and spent during my European travels. It may be odd to some, but I actually looked forward to using a different currency. It makes me feel like an experienced world travel.

Like many other tourist cities, Prague has souvenir shops and stands strategically placed all over the city. Walking by many of the shops, I noticed that Czechs sell their items using English puns. “Czech Mate” or “Don’t bounce Czechs.” The hostel I stayed in was called “Czech Inn.” So I Czeched-Inn into the Czech Inn. They were many puns using “Czech” just so you don’t forget your time in Prague.

Walking Tours

Best. Decision. Ever. During the week up until I left for Prague, I had no idea what to do. I just knew that I wanted to go. I wrote to my brother who has been to Prague before and he gave me a list of places that I had to see. I had no idea where to start or where to go first. What my hostel recommended was to take the walking tour, which was well worth it. I took the free tour in the morning and then paid the equivalent of 10 euros for the Castle walking tour in the afternoon. Between those two tours I saw everything I wanted to see in one full day.

Here is a list of the must-see places in Prague:

Astronomical Clock

In the evening, I returned to this clock in Old Town Square. I waited for the clock to strike eleven and watched as the skeleton (2nd to the right – upper) rang the bell indicating that the hour of death has arrived. The two men in the upper left side, representing vanity and greed, shook their heads and begged for more time. Meanwhile, the two blue windows on top opened to reveal the 12 Apostles, watching over the event unfold. The skeleton decided to grant mankind one more hour and stopped ringing the bell. The show ends with the golden rooster at the very top crowing at the start of a new hour.

Charles Bridge

Old Town Square

John Lennon Wall

Since the 1980s, this wall has been filled with graffiti of John Lennon and related images of the Beatles. However, this wall commemorates more than just John Lennon. It is also about freedom from Communism, love, and peace.

The Castles 

The castle complex is huge and it’s hard to capture everything in a single shot. I decided to post this wall that was hand carved and very detailed.

The Cathedrals 

Take a close look at those two men. They are modern 20th century men that have been added to this cathedral. Over the centuries, this cathedral has been under construction. In fact, there are still more places on the outside of this cathedral where more statues should go, but the church needs more money to fund such a project. Currently most of Czech are atheists and agnostics with little interest in donating more money. There are many other projects to invest so I don’t blame them. Still, this cathedral is absolutely beautiful, especially the inside.

The Parks and Gardens 

Quarter-Century in Prague

In the evening, I wandered around Prague, soaking in the night scene. With my long travel days on Friday morning and Sunday afternoon, I was determined to make the most of my Saturday. That included not going to bed until I felt uncomfortable being out at night in Prague. With many tourists wandering the streets during the late hours, I didn’t feel unsafe at all. As I crossed the Charles Bridge at night, I saw fireworks shooting off from both sides of the river – probably to celebrate Czech winning the ice hockey game that night. Still, it was incredible that the fireworks went off just as I was  half-way across the bridge. It was God’s way of putting the icing on my birthday cake.

I am now 25 years old – a quarter century. Truthfully, I was in Prague a couple days before my birthday. I’m really turning 25 in Bielsko-Biala, Poland. Still, I like to think of my trip to Prague as my birthday trip. As I was standing on that bridge, staring at the fireworks, I couldn’t believe that I am now a quarter century – officially in the mid-twenties instead of early-twenties. At the same time, I thought about all the places I’ve been within the last year while I was 24. Within a year, I’ve been to Switzerland, Italy, Poland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Czech, England, and Greece. Not a lot of people can say that they’ve been to as many places before reaching a quarter-century. With that in mind, I hope I visit many more places and meet more incredible people during this crazy journey called life.

Spring in London

It has always been a childhood dream of mine to visit London, England. I’ve read countless novels that took place in this city, which had whetted my appetite. Back in 2010, while I was an undergrad student, I went on a French study tour through my university and had a layover in London on the way to Paris. I never counted it, but now I can say I’ve officially been in London, England!

First Impressions

I will be completely honest. The first thing that came into my mind was “Thank God most people speak English!” Everywhere else I’ve traveled to, I had to work through language barriers. Yes, major cities in Europe have people who speak English, but sometimes it is still hard to communicate. Once I landed into the airport (and had a few complications at the border patrol), I felt confident communicating. After I got settled into the place I’m staying at, I had little difficulties finding the places I wanted to see because everyone speaks English! As I walked around London on day one, I couldn’t help but think about how it’s a nice way to relax and not worry about language barriers.

Traveling with Friends

Throughout most of my year here in Europe, I have traveled alone. This time was different. I had planned this trip with two friends I had met during New Years in northern Poland. While I thoroughly enjoy the experience of solo traveling – learning crucial life lessons and meeting new people along the way – it was a very welcome change to experience London with friends and have church support. My friends and I were able to stay with the Newbold College recruiter, who was situated in the heart of London. This gave us the ability to walk and see most of the places we wanted to see. Our host went above and beyond, making us feel welcomed and going out of the way to help us. Having my two traveling companions and a friendly host made me feel at ease and included.

London Landmarks and the Rosetta Stone

During the first full day in London, my friends and I saw most of the major landmarks in London: Big Ben, the Eye of London, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and Cleopatra’s Needle. When I pulled out my camera, I discovered that the battery died, but thank God I had my iPad as my backup. While most tourists take pictures with a smart phone or a decent camera, I looked like a dork holding up my iPad for all my photos. Still, it’s better to look like a dork and have all of these pictures to help me write this blog then not have pictures at all.

What I looked forward to seeing the most in London was the Rosetta Stone. I had reminded my companions all week that I really wanted to see it and we had to go to the British Museum. When I finally gazed upon the stone, I was in awe. This stone helped crack the Egyptian language. With out it, how much of our world history would still remain a mystery to us? As a true Rosetta Stone fan, I purchased a Rosetta stone mug and a Rosetta stone USB drive.

Newbold College 

For one evening, our host took us to Newbold College where we would spend Friday night. Our friends took a train to Bracknell where the college was located. Newbold is a small Seventh-day Adventist college, but the students who attended the school came from several different countries. We didn’t get to meet very many students since it was Easter weekend, but those we did meet were friendly, telling us about the school and where they came from. During the evening, I heard two guys in the lobby area play contemporary Christian music on the guitar. I couldn’t help but think about how much I missed live contemporary Christian music. In fact, during church service the next day, I couldn’t help but think about how much I missed listening to sermons in English and singing contemporary music.

Hyde Park and St. James Park

There are two large parks that we visited in London – Hyde Park and St. James Park. With spring upon us and celebrating the Easter weekend, I was excited to see all the flowers in bloom, especially the tree blossoms. The swans were in the pond, the grass was green, and the leaves were returning to the willows. Both parks were pleasant to walk through, and we spent some time in one of the parks every day we were in London.

The Soapy Smith of London and Drunken Encounters 

There were two interesting characters that my friends and I encountered during our time in London. The first was a drunken woman we met on the train from Waterloo station to Bracknell. At first we didn’t realize she was drunk. We were looking for empty seats on a crowded train, and she smiled at us and warmly greeted us. It wasn’t until she shook our hands in greeting, and held mine for several awkward sentences, that I realized that she was wasted. We spent almost the entire trip listening her say that she’s “drunk as as skunk” and then complain about the social sponges who abuse the welfare system, which would have been an interesting discussion to have with her if she was more sober. Then at one point she sprayed her perfume on all of us.

The other interesting person that we encountered was someone I like to call the Soapy Smith of London. For those who don’t know who Soapy Smith, he is a famous con artist during the Klondike Gold-rush. Instead of breaking his back and digging for gold in the Yukon, he made money off of stampeders in Skagway, Alaska through gambling and trickery. One of his many famous games of trickery was “Find the nugget” where he and his friends would trick stampeders by hiding a small gold nugget under one of three cups. The cups would be shuffled around and then someone would guess where the nugget was hidden. If they guessed right, then would win money. However, like all con artists, they would cheat to make sure they would win and the stampeders would lose.

This con artist in London, located right next to Tower Bridge, was no different. He also played the “Find the Nugget” game, but using a pompom ball that would make it easy slip into another cup without anyone noticing. My friends and I spent a good twenty minutes watching the con artist play his game. We watched people make and lose anywhere between 40 to 100 British Pounds, but there was a pattern. There were at least three people around who kept on playing, making and losing around 100 pounds. When they did lose, they were suspiciously not upset. They just kept on playing. It made the rest of us certain that they were winning so that outsiders would think they have a chance at winning. Like I said before, this man was a Soapy Smith.

Fighting Homesickness with Food

As much as I like Poland, the variety (and quality) of restaurants is lacking. The type of food I missed the most was Mexican. While I didn’t go to an authentic Mexican restaurant, sadly, I did have my fill of Chipotle. It was very American of me to want Chipotle, but I hadn’t realized how much I missed it until I was in London.

That was not the only time I had “Mexican.” We went to two other restaurants that severed Mexican food, taking advantage of opportunity. We did eat other types of food. Twice we had burgers, and on one occasion, pasta. There were other foods, snacks, and treats that we found in London that I missed from home, which included Doritos. Reese’s, Orange juice with pulp, and hummus with pita bread. Oh, and I bought a bagel too. Can you believe that Poland doesn’t have bagels?

Going Back to Poland 

It was hard to go back to London, and it wasn’t just because I had to wake up at four in the morning to make my flight. London felt like returning to home, even though it wasn’t home. It had so many things that I could resonate with. From food, to language, to church services in English with live contemporary music, made me feel like I was home even though I was not. If I had traveled straight to London from America, I would have looked for all of the things that are different. While I did notice the obvious differences (like how every drives on the wrong – I mean left – side of the road), I observed what was similar and felt like home. While I wouldn’t want to live in London, I’d definitely plan another trip in the future.

This is Bielsko-Biala

While I have mostly written about my travels around Europe, I hardly took the time to write about life in my temporary home away from home – Bielsko-Biala, Poland. Now that several months have gone by, I forgot to appreciate what Bielsko-Biala has to offer. Lately, I have been seeing the dirty, ugly, and the unattractive sides of Bielsko-Biala. I have been viewing Bielsko-Biala as the place I live in. While residing in this city, my focus has been on work and rest. I have developed a routine here in Bielsko-Biala that life that doesn’t include much exploring and experimenting. When I do explore, the first thing I want to do is get out of Bielsko. Last Sunday, I forced myself out of bed, grabbed my camera, and toured my temporary hometown.

A Brief Background of Bielsko-Biala

Bielsko-Biala is a city in southern Poland with approximately 174,000 residents. The name, Bielsko-Biala, refers to the river that cuts through the city, the Biala River or White River. Originally, the city used to be two smaller cities, Bielsko and Biala, which was divided by the Biala River. In 1951, the two cities merged and formally became known as Bielsko-Biala.  Within this last century, Bielsko-Biala was one the home of World War II victims.

Not far from where I live, there is a post indicating a site of a Jewish synagogue that was destroyed during the war and many of the Jews that once lived in this city was sent to the infamous concentration camp, Auschwitz (which is located not too far from Bielsko-Biala). After the war, the Soviet Union instilled communism in Poland. In 1981, a general strike took place in Bielsko-Biala in protest against the corrupt communist leaders, which resulted in their resignation and an increase in wages. Eventually communism fell and 1990 became the year known by many as the formal end of Communist’s People Republic of Poland and the beginning of the modern Republic of Poland.

Bielsko-Biala Today – 2015

Today, Bielsko-Biala is an industrial city for textiles, machines, and automobiles. It also attracts visitors with the nearby Beskid Mountains that can be seen on a clear day. Back in October, a couple of teachers from the language school I work at took a hike in the Beskid Mountains and soaked in the beautiful trees and the view of other mountains. In the winter, many people ski in the mountains (but not me since I am not much of a skier).

Bielsko-Biala has a mixture of the old and the new. There are building that have stood for over a hundred years, and yet there are modern structures and modern art that help redefine Bielsko today. Some of the older buildings are kept in good shape while others are starting to crumble and fall apart. Some buildings are abandoned altogether. I do not have much of an explanation for this. Perhaps the people want to let some of the old crumble away and ignore it altogether. Perhaps someday there is a plan to destroy and replace it with something new. Reflecting on its history, I don’t blame Bielsko for wanting to recreate itself.

However, there are many places that look old, rundown, and neglected. Staircases are crumbling, and smokers find cracks on the ground to place their used butts instead of seeking an ashtray. In one part of town, there is a street lined with crumbling buildings with layers of exposed brick.

In other parts of Bielsko, there is lots of color. There is one apartment building that I admire with the balconies painted several different colors. Near the city center of Bielsko, there is one street where the buildings on both sides are painted yellow (though personally I find this a bit tacky).

Bielsko-Biala, like almost all cities in Poland, is catholic. Images and monuments of Christ, Mother Mary, popes, and apostles can be found throughout the city. And yet, Bielsko is also unique by being accepting of Protestants who dwell in the city. In fact, Bielsko-Biala takes pride in the fact that their city has the only statue of Martin Luther in all of Poland, which is located in front of its Lutheran church. As a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, I am blessed that have a church nearby with about a hundred members who welcomed me on day one.

My Life in Bielsko-Biala

As I mentioned earlier, I have mixed feelings about Bielsko-Biala as a whole. Many days, I wished I lived in Krakow for the year, or another bigger city full of history, art, and culture. At the same time, living in Bielsko-Biala has allowed me to experience an unique aspect of Poland and Europe. Poland may be very catholic with people who go to church every week religiously, but there are non-Catholics who find a different (protestant) church to attend religiously without shame. It may have old buildings that are falling apart, but there is the hope that something new will one day take it’s place, recreating and redefining itself. (Though there are pessimists who believe that Bielsko-Biala will just decline further – I like to be hopeful but I will admit that I am uncertain.)

More people are learning English in Bielsko-Biala. The older generation, the ones who lived throughout the communist era, never had the opportunity to learn English. Today, there is a strong desire to learn English, starting at a young age (which is where Native English teachers like me come in). There are days where I keenly feel the language barriers, finding people both young and old who cannot communicate with me. Yet there are places where there are young people who can speak to me in English. Sadly, most are too shy to talk to me. It took at least a couple of months for some of the Poles in the school I work at and the church I attend to warm up to me. At the same time, there are those who enjoy talking to me and want to practice their English and get to know me.

Is there a brighter future for Bielsko-Biala ten years from now? Twenty? Will it decline? What will happen? I don’t know, but I like to see it improve and continue to definite itself. As for today, for better or worse, it is my home away from home.

*Author’s Note: Embedded into this blog, there are links to the sources I used for the historical information that I referenced. Also, all the pictures in this blog are taken by me.

Seven Hours in Munich

February 14, 2015

Looking at my flight itinerary, I noticed that I had a seven hour layover in Munich as I traveled from Athens back to Kraków. My vacation was over, and the last way I wanted to end the week was to sit in an airport for seven hours. A friend who stayed in the same hostel as me in Athens recommended that I visit the city center. Since she has spent a lot of time in Europe, she knew from memory what transit line I needed to get on and the stop with the best sites and shops. Her advice definitely did not lead me astray.

I only had a small snippet of Munich, but what I took in during those few hours were rich. As soon as I emerged from the underground at Marienplatz, this was the first thing I saw:

I was in awe. My eyes scanned the beautiful architecture. The buildings that surrounded me were gorgeous and I couldn’t take enough pictures. I behaved like a starved tourist, but my seven hour layer suddenly wasn’t long enough. I wanted to make each moment count.

First, I needed to get the necessities out of the way, which included buying coffee and going jean shopping since jeans in Germany are more stylish and more form fitting than Polish jeans. (Personal opinion.) After that, the rest of the day was mine. I explored the square and saw lots of markets. What caught my eye was the cheese market. I sampled all the cheeses that was allowable and then bought a chunk of cheese to take back with me. Thankfully it made it past security when I had to check myself back into the airport.

I peaked at the other shops and stands in the square. Since it was Valentine’s Day, there were flowers sold right and left. Women walked around with their significant other in one hand and a rose. I even came across of a statue of a woman with a rose in placed in her hand.

As I explored more of the square, I overhead an English tour guide talk about climbing a nearby tower for two euros. Less than two minutes later, I approached the tower and climbed hundreds of steps to receive a stunning view of Munich.

When I climbed back down, I knew I had limited time before I had to take the underground back to the airport and go through security all over again. With that in mind, I decided to soak in as much art and architecture as I can before heading back.

During my flight back to Krakow, I couldn’t help but think about how much I liked Munich. It’s the second city I’ve explored in Germany and so far I really like this country, the architecture, and the culture. One way or another, I have to go back someday and properly explore Munich and other cities in Germany. In the meantime, I will savor the memories I have made in this city and country so far, even if I only had seven hours.

A Greek Photo Diary

Recently I posted a blog about going to Slovakia during a two week winter holiday in Poland. During the first week, I went to Slovakia with the school I teach at. If you haven’t already, check out my blog on Slovakia here. As soon as I returned to Poland from my ski trip, I immediately left for Greece early the next morning. I almost didn’t go to Greece because I had more than one friend tell me that Athens wasn’t worth visiting for more than one day. The ruins were pathetic and there wasn’t anything worth seeing.

I’m here to prove otherwise with several pictures I took throughout the week. I loved Greece and I would love to someday go back. February isn’t the best month to visit. It was cold for several days, and the museums closed earlier in the day. Still, every moment was worth it.

Sunday, February 8

Every Sunday at 11:00 am sharp, there is a “Changing of the Guards” ceremony in front of the Parliament building in Athens. Soldiers wear their finest uniforms, which includes white kilts and black clogs with what seems to be giant pompoms on the front. Still, the parade that proceeded the guard change was interesting to watch and gave me an insight into Greek culture. I never pictured modern Greek soldiers to look like this, especially since my mind reels back to images of mostly naked Gerard Butler in the film 300.

After watching the ceremony, I took a hike up a nearby mountain which provided a beautiful view of Athens, the Acropolis, and the sea. On the view top was a tiny church and a priest selling rosaries. The view was spectacular and well worth the muscle-building hike.

Monday, February 9

On this day, I visited three different museums since it was a cold, rainy, foggy day. A friend I met at the hostel came with me and we learned more about ancient Greek culture and Greek mythology. Unfortunately cameras weren’t allowed in the museums, but outside of the Acropolis museums were dig sites that were well worth seeing.

One of the sites I visited was the ancient Greek baths. Next to the site was a sign with a drawing of what the baths might have looked like back in the day. I can’t help but wonder if I would have liked to bathe with a bunch of other naked people if I had lived back then. I’d like to think not.

Tuesday, February 10

This was the day when I visited most of the ancient ruins that can be found in Athens, which include the infamous Acropolis, the Temple of Zeus, and Hadrian’s Arch. It was still a cold and rainy day, but I had an agenda so I braved the cold. In fact, as I climbed to the top of the Acropolis, it started to snow big fluffy flakes. Watching the fat snowflakes fall around the Acropolis and other ancient ruins was actually a beautiful, and unique site. However it was harder to take a good picture of the snow and the pictures I captured were before and after the brief snowfall.

An interesting fun fact about Athens and the Acropolis is the mythological story of the showdown between the goddess Athena and the god Poseidon. There was a competition to see who would be the patron god or goddess. Poseidon tried to prove his might be creating powerful horses. Athena countered this by creating an olive tree to symbolize peace. As you can guess, Athena won and the city was named Athens.

Around the Acropolis, there were various statues and the Theatre of Dionysus (god of wine).

On this day, I also visited Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Zeus. The ruins were also neat to see and explore.

Wednesday, February 11

At six in the morning, I woke up and hiked to the bus station on the other side of Athens took a three hour bus ride to the tiny mountain village of Delphi. Reflecting back on this trip, I would have to say that this was my favorite archaeological site. There was so much to see in Delphi and the view of the mountains against the ruins were gorgeous. It was another cold, windy day. And there weren’t a lot of tourists, but that just meant more artistic pictures for me to create.

The picture below is of the Temple of Apollo, the god of music and prophecies. One would have to make the hard hike up the mountain to seek guidance from Apollo and hear a prophecy from one of the oracles.

This is the Rock of Sibyl. According to local traditions (and the sign I read near this site), the first prophetess of Delphi stood here to utter her prophecies. Near the rock stands the Treasury of the Athenians.

Not far from the treasury and the Sibyl Rock, there was an interesting site called “Circular Open Area of Halos.” Every 8 years the Septerion (a ritual featuring the reenactment of the god Apollo slaying the serpent Pytho) took place here.

Overall, I really enjoyed Delphi and there was a lot of cool ruins to see and look at .

But what I especially enjoyed about my trip to Delphi was the gorgeous view of the mountains.

If you ever visit Greece – do not skip out on Delphi, even if it’s a cold day.

Thursday, February 12

On this day, I took a day trip to the ancient port at Cape Sounion. There I saw a beautiful view of the sea and the Temple of Poseidon.

This day was the windiest day of the entire week, and I had a hard time taking a good selfie.

The sea was stunningly beautiful, which made me glad that I braved the intense wind.

Friday, February 13

This was my last full day in Greece and I took a day trip to the city of Corinth. I was interested in visiting this city because of my Christian background and special interest in the Apostle Paul’s travels. To be honest, Corinth was a disappointment. There was little ancient evidence and the city felt rundown with very few interesting things to see. The view of the sea, however, was beautiful with its blue waters.

When I returned, I made up for this trip by having one last fun night with the hostel friends I made throughout the week. We went out to eat at a restaurant that sold amazing gyros and then hiked around Athens. The weather finally warmed up and we explored the night life of Athens. The best part of the evening was climbing the rocks near the Acropolis and looking out at Athens lit up at night. Unfortunately my camera battery died so I don’t have photographic evidence of this, but I still remember view of the Acropolis lit up and the white building below us shine. It was a beautiful week to end out the trip.

Saturday, February 14

This was the day I packed up and flew back to Krakow. It was a long trip back with a seven hour layover in Munich. During my flights, I reflected on this trip and I couldn’t help but disagree with the people who say that Athens is uninteresting. There was a lot to see in Athens and I didn’t get to everything. There is amazing food, olives, gyros, and Greek pastries. There were olive trees, orange trees, and cats everywhere. There were museums filled with ancient artifacts that preserved Greek history and myth. I would highly recommend visiting Athens to anyone interested in Ancient Greek culture, and if you find that February is the only time you can make the trip, don’t be disappointed. There are still many cool things to do and see.